Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz probably didn't make a lot of friends in either Towson's cash register-operating or Birkenstock sandal-wearing crowds when he publicly expressed concerns this week that he doesn't see any great need to create a Towson "circulator" bus system. The view also puts him squarely at odds with the Baltimore County Council, which last fall authorized a one-year circulator pilot program beginning in 2018.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kamenetz made two valid arguments. First, is there really a need for an independent bus system, given that Towson is already served by Maryland Transit Administration bus routes and by the Baltimore Collegetown Network shuttles — and especially given that even Towson's most congested traffic intersections are far from failing? And second, how would such an expensive system be financed, given that the Charm City Circulator has run up deficits and is costing Baltimore $14 million annually?
But here's a third consideration that the county executive did not mention but perhaps should have: Why must Baltimore County create an entirely new bus service exclusively for Towson instead of simply seeking to expand existing MTA bus routes? Could it be that a Towson-only bus system appeals to those who do not wish to step foot on an MTA bus? If so, why is that? That's a topic worth exploring in greater detail.
First, let's make one point clear. Towson will need improved transit connections — as does the rest of the Baltimore region in an era when simply building new highways or widening existing ones is no longer feasible. Gov. Larry Hogan appears to have recognized the challenge as well, having announced last fall a regional effort to reorganize and improve existing MTA bus services. Whether that program has been funded sufficiently is a different matter — particularly given the devastating cancellation of the Red Line light rail project.
Towson is growing and becoming increasingly urbanized. That the MTA is currently studying the potential for a Towson Circulator is entirely appropriate under the circumstances. And Councilman David Marks, the Greater Towson Committee and others have shown appropriate foresight in recognizing the need for improved public transit. The question is, why reinvent the proverbial wheel that goes round and round?
There is an alternative. The MTA already operates quite a few bus lines that serve Towson — the 8 (which runs from the University of Maryland Transit Center to Lutherville), the Quick Bus 48 (which follows the 8 route but with fewer stops), the 11 (Towson Town Center to the Inner Harbor) and the 55 (Fox Ridge to Towson Court House). Now, perhaps not every senior housing project or shopping center has a stop, but there's no reason why any of these routes can't be adjusted to accommodate demographic changes. The MTA stopped serving Kenilworth Mall, for instance, because of complaints from Kenilworth Avenue neighbors about the noise and vibrations from passing buses, but that decision could easily be reversed.
Sure, a fare-free service like the Charm City Circulator is likely to attract patrons who won't step foot on an MTA bus, but there is a downside to two-tiered bus service. It means people are less connected to the broader region, potentially accommodating shoppers and tourists but interfering with everyday commuters trying to get to and from work. If the county expects the MTA to help finance a connector (and it most assuredly does), that probably means reducing existing MTA bus services. State tax dollars don't grow on trees any more than county dollars do.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: MTA bus service needs to be better in almost every respect — more reliable, more convenient and more frequent. But that generally means investing more in it, not less. And public accommodations ought not be segregated by class, race or place of residency. Even local colleges may wish to consider whether students wouldn't be better off with MTA bus passes instead of their own shuttles.
Perhaps in February when the MTA bus study is released, the feasibility for a Towson Circulator will be made clear. But it's difficult to believe that upgraded MTA bus service can't provide the same level of service more efficiently and effectively — if people are willing to give it a chance. If they are not, is that a problem with the bus system or with the potential patrons?